Between 1898 and 1912, families across the country were bludgeoned in their sleep with the blunt side of an axe. Jewellery and valuables were left in plain sight, bodies were piled together, faces covered with cloth. Some of these cases, like the infamous Villisca, Iowa, murders, received national attention. But few people believed the crimes were related. And fewer still would realize that all of these families lived within walking distance to a train station.
Bill James, who is a statistics whizz and baseball writer, became fascinated with these cases and applied his skills to work out which of the crimes were linked and which were standalone, and ultimately to identify the killer. He enlisted his daughter Rachel McCarthy James as a research assistant and she is identified as a co-author of the book.
You will know by now that I cannot leave true crime stuff alone, and I came across this book when reading through a list of best non-fiction crime reads and was intrigued by the premise, mainly because of the timeframe. Intellectually I know that what we now call serial killers have been around forever, but the idea that it would be possible to identify that type of criminal from before the First World War just called to me.
I won’t go into detail about the solution because the point of the book is to explain how it was arrived at and we don’t get given a name until the very end, but it seemed plausible that the named individual rode the rails and killed when e had the opportunity, which is the best that anyone could hope for at this distance.
The Man from the Train is written in a distinctive style which the reader will either love or find annoying; I don’t think there is middle ground 🙂 James approaches this in the same way that he would write about baseball I guess. He is very much in the thick of the narrative; no detachment here. I must admit that I really liked the way in which he makes his arguments, justifying why he has included something or why he disagrees with the assessment of others, sometimes coming across as quite defensive. He can also be a bit rude about other writers, but you get such a sense of James explaining all of this to you in person that I found it very entertaining.
James doesn’t shy away from the nastiness of the murders, the poor quality of many of the investigations, and tragically the lynching of a number of suspects. Awful. He also provides context on what forensic measures were available at the time (hint – not much).
It reminded me a little of They All Loved Jack (which you can read about on my old blog) but without the unfortunate opinions.